John P. Thoman

All posts tagged John P. Thoman


January 1966

The earliest image of the Thoman Mill. The home has been identified at the Morely Boarding House it may have been the original Thoman Home. (FPLA/CADL)

My first recollection of the old mill occurred at the age of three. We lived next door in a house where the Wynkoop, Hallendeck, Crawford Printing Company was and I had fallen down a hole dug for the foundation of some bins and struck my head on a sharp stick a very small fraction of an inch from my eye. I can remember watching the water turned red in the basin where my father was bathing my head. Later on I was given a knife by my father and set to cutting the tarred cord that bound the bundles of staves for our barrels  cutting them into lengths to tie feed bags. In those days there was little waste. Still later I used to earn my nickels with a brush and color cake stenciling the barrel heads with our brands. Later on we changed to printed labels and paste. I rather grew up in the mill and in 1905 when my father [John P. Thoman] took over after a three years absences, I started to work there full time. I continued till the liquidation in 1957. So with 52 years in the same place you can see why I smile when people speak of a 40 year tenure as an achievement.

I know very little of the earliest history of the mill. Someone interested in early Lansing has said that the uptown building corner Ottawa and Grand was built in 1857 just 100 years before its purchase by the city and demolition. The first information I have is that in 1868, Frederick Thoman older brother of my father and a brother-in-law of his by the name of Rietz bought the mill and that as far as I know was the first that the name of Thoman was connected with it.[1]As a matter of interest, there was at the time of razing still there an old scale that bore the name of Thoman & Rietz. I believe that somewhat later Frederick Thoman acquired sole ownership. Anyway in 1884 my father sold his interest in a drygoods store in Crestline Ohio and bought a third interest in the mill thence known as F. Thoman & Bro. I believe it was about that time that the mill took out its runs of stone and installed the then new system of steel roller mills and installed the texas [The manuscript does say texas] on top to care for some additional cleaning machinery. One of the stones is now acting as horseblock in front of the old Thoman residence on Grand Ave south. I believe also that about that time or a little later a Corliss engine was installed in place of an old slide valve engine. In 1898 the firm bought the North Lansing mill of the North Lansing Milling Co. from the receivers of the bank the mill had failed in 1893 and you will notice so had the bank. This was located on the mill race there that had on it also the Breisch mill at the corner of Franklin [East Grand River now East César E. Chávez] and Turner and further upstream the mill last run by W. M. Walton, before that by Christian Madison and before that by a Mr. Hart whose predecessor was a Mr. Hughes.[2]The mill we bought was built in 1890 just in time to get caught in the depression of 1893. At the time our firm bought in the export business was very active so this mill was promptly set to work and more than paid off its cost by 1902 when father abandoned his interest in the mill and found a job as superintendent of the City Water Works. I do not know anything of the operations of the mill during 1902 to 1905 other than that the business became quite run down and lost many of its customers. In 1905 through the interposition of Mr. J L Fulton then manager of the local gas company, father went back in the mill with a controlling interest in the corporation then formed as the Thoman Milling Company.[3]Some few years later, he acquired complete ownership and it was operated by our family until its liquidation in 1957. In 1905 when father took over we also operated the Lake Shore Railroad elevator located on Michigan Ave East just east of the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railroad tracks about where the Briggs Company building now is.[4]This had a U shaped drive off Michigan Ave. We used it for wheat storage and also bought and whipped some grain such as oats, rye etc. After a few years we gave up the rental and shortly afterwards it was torn down. Along about 1927 or so, father suggested that we sell the uptown property and build a mill outside the city since the mill was too close to the center of the city. We had not operated the North Lansing plant since taking over but that also was close to a business district. However I had a strong suspicion of what was about to happen a couple years later and did not want to get involved with a considerable indebtedness that a new mill would entail in the situation that I expected would be arriving. A firm in another Michigan town also family owned as were all mills at that time, built a fine new mill at that time and now is doing a splendid business. but two of the managers died of heart attacks one after the other before the depression was over so I have no regrets. With no one in the family to carry on, by the time the depression had abated enough to even think of an expensive new venture, I had decided that the mill, our old miller and I would grow old together and fortunately I was the one that survived. With now storage to speak of and the movement of wheat coming largely at harvest time due to changes farming, government controls of various types requiring much accounting and reports, operating the mill was more that normally difficult and I was very happy to liquidate. The mill in its earlier days furnished and excellent market for the farmers wheat and winter it was not unusual to see a line of wagons and bobsleds waiting to unload going from the mill south on Grand Street to Michigan and east on Michigan Avenue to beyond the bridge. However as city grew and traffic became more of a problem and the neighboring small towns got grain elevators, less and less wheat came direct from the farmers and finally practically all came by carlot.

The Thoman Mill in 1935 note the Wynkoop, Hallendeck, Crawford Printing Company building in the background (FPLA/CADL)

The mill had other activities than milling. It pumped water for the building of the present old capitol building. It furnished steam to the buildings up Ottawa to Washington and thence north to beyond the middle of the block. It furnished power to print the old Lansing Journalin the building just west of Wynkoop, Hallenbeck & Crawford Printing Company building by means of a shaft that ran through the basement of the intervening building.[5]We also furnished power to the Michigan Knitting Company which was just across the road from the Lansing Journalin the building where Barker Fowler were later located. Just how we jumped the road I don’t know but I presume by another underground shaft so we were an early utility in Lansing. Professor Weil who was head of the Engineering Department at the Michigan Agricultural College for years used to bring his class down each year to take cards off the Corliss engine which for a time was the really up to date engine in the city, this to put in practice some of the learning they got in classes.[6]Some years later possibly around 1915 or somewhat later, we put in city electric power, tore down the cooper shop and our engine room and built the combined space into a warehouse. In addition to our carlot business we always worked the city and state trade hard and sold considerable through those outlets. Somewhere along about 1920 I would guess but I am quite hazy on my dates, having the equipment for making self rising flour for the south we to commenced to make pancake flour this only for the city and state trade. Pancakes were a popular breakfast in those days and we used to make somewhere around 150 ton a season. In the olden days of Graham flour was made in a barrel and bran, middlings and flour were mixed to the judgement of the mixer who considered his own make a very superior article. We brought a small stone mill and then made Graham just as Sylvester Graham decided flour should be made and we sold considerable of that.[7]Of course pancake flour and Graham went the way of white flour. Later on there was quite a wave of propaganda about the loss of vitamins in the preparation of flours and foods so flour was “enriched” by the addition of Vitamin B, mostly B1 and iron. Whether that is still done I can’t say.

Now it is difficult to talk about milling without getting on the subject of wheat and also to speak of general industry conditions. Roughly there are four kinds of wheats – Durum, Hard Spring, Hard Winter and Sort Winter. Durum is raised mostly in Minnesota, the Dakotas and Montana and has entirely different characteristics from other wheats and is used only for macaroni and similar pastes. Spring Wheat is raised in the same areas as Durum and is an especially strong flour used mostly in bakeries for breads. Hard Winter is raised chiefly in Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas and runs on the average less strong than Spring. It is also used mostly for breads in bakeries. The weaker types are also used for domestic flour even in those marked “For Bread and Pastry” but that type is far from being a real pastry flours. Soft Winter Wheat is raised mostly in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri and also the Pacific northwest. Michigan is adapted to raise a soft white wheat which is the best for pastry and this also is claimed by Michigan people to have the best flavor and I believe that claim can be substantiated. Oregon, Washington and Idaho raise the only wheat –also a white wheat comparable for pastry use. The other soft wheat states mentioned raise a somewhat stronger wheat not so well adapted for the finest pastries and piecrusts it is mostly a red wheat. Several years when there was a near failure in the soft wheat belt and especially Michigan, we shipped in and ground considerable Pacific northwest wheat but the soft wheat due to its shortage ran about 50 cents a bushel higher in price than the weaker Hard Winters and at the difference the bakers put in more shortening and got by with the harder wheat flours. Extra shortening –an expensive item will reduce a strong flour to pastry uses. The difference in the three classed used in baking is in the amount and elasticity of the gluten that gemlike substance left in your mouth when you chew up wheat. The variety of wheat sown of course makes a big difference but type of soil and climate are important in retaining the characteristics of any type. High gluten wheats need a soil rich in nitrogen and dry hot weather during ripening. When home baking was an important factor in the consumption of Michigan wheat flour, the Michigan Agricultural College developed some Red Wheats that ran higher in gluten with a good quality and remained fairly stable in gluten strength when raised on strong land. So these were well adapted for homemade bread. However with the abandoning of home baking and the strong demand for the superior pastry wheat for which Michigan is especially adapted, Michigan now sticks to soft white winter varieties. During Governor Groesbeck’s administration as governor, and attempt was made to get the Michigan institutions to use Michigan flour in their baking bread. An accomplished baker from Grand Rapids was hired to demonstrate the needed skill to get results from Michigan Flours which having less gluten and its gluten being a little less elastic had less tolerances and required careful and accurate handling. After trials in the bakeries of several institutions, the Governor ordered the various institutions to use Michigan flours as accurately handled a good leaf was gotten and there was considerable comment from the Governor and his staff on the excellent flavor. However most bakers either did not have the skill or were not willing to use the care necessary to get adequate results. Frankly even the harder varieties if Michigan flour when used in large batches presented a problem to the average baker and after a matter of five or six years the institutions drifted back to the use of Hard Spring Wheat flour.

Now about the milling business in general 60 to 70 years ago almost every village on a stream had a waterpower mill and there were many run by steam where there was no water. These were mostly very small 15 to 50 barrels a day capacity 24 hours basis and known as grist mills. The farmer brought in his wheat and the mill would start up and grind his wheat into flour and keep a portion for grinding and in my time it was usually the offal bran and middlings. These mills would also buy wheat and sell to the local groceries. However the farmer trade was not insignificant. I have seen farmers take home in the fall 500 to 600 # of flour and you know that they would be in for more in the spring. Many cities and larger towns had larger mills that shipped flour in carlots and these were known as merchant mills. These would also do gristing but could not stop and start their mills for special wheat as they kept a uniform blend of wheats for their milling mix, so they would merely exchange their regular flour for the wheat. When I started at the mill, there was a small mill in Laingsburg, two in Mason, one in Eaton Rapids, one in Charlotte, one in Perry, one in Morrice, in Springport, Fowlerville, Howell, Olivet, Lake Odessa and had been one in Williamston so one can see how thick they were. And there were merchant mills in Battle Creek, Jackson, Saginaw, Plainwell, Holland, Dowagiac, the firms with two mills each in Grand Rapids, two in Ann Arbor, two in Flint, one in Portland now all gone. The one in Lowell and the one in Ionia are still running, but I believe these sell largely to bakeries by truckload and do little carlot shipment. The south was a big market for Michigan Flour and I believe there is still a little sold there. If I had an extra finger or tow I could pretty well count the merchant millers of Michigan flour on the fingers of one hand.

What has happened to the Milling business? When I was young we shipped a great deal to the export market Ireland, England, Scotland, Belgium, US of Colombia [United States of Colombia], Cuba etc. We also sold to New York City and the New England States and later on great deal to the southeast states. Our customer in New York City, Grenville Perrin & Company had a standing order with us to ship as often as we had flour to spare. He sold it for pastry use with the guarantee that it would save a dollar a barrel on shortening. The domestic flour was shipped in wooden barrels and the export flour in 203# Osnaburgs a heavy cotton sack. In export flour, the price was always figured on 202# of flour and packed that way as the sack would always gain a pound in crossing the ocean. Since I joined the mill in 1905 we still sold some flour to England and Cuba. However about the start of the century the export business commenced to die. Foreign countries commenced to put a heavy duty on flour and let wheat come in free of course to build up their own milling industry. England especially built some large and excellent port mills. Thus they had the advantage of being able to get their wheat from all over the world wherever it was the cheapest. The exporting countries were Canada, India, Russia, Manchuria, Argentina, Australia, and of course the United States. Since some of their wheats were trodden out by camels, water buffalo etc., the English developed some very efficient cleaning machinery that could take out small stones, wild garlic, and other seeds and also developed washers. I believe this had some effect on U.S. millers as washers were developed here and were among the early installers of one. It was surprising what the washing would get after you thought the wheat was immaculate. The English also became expert blenders of wheat to produce a reasonable uniform flours. 

[1]This was Frank A. Reitz who was married to Frederick Thoman’s sister, Mary. Frank passed way suddenly in December of 1870.

[2]The Hart Mill was owned by Judge Alvin N. Hart and managed by his son Ben Hart. It was sold in 1897 to Senator Arthur D. Hughes, the order of ownership is reversed. Thoman may be referring to Charles E. Madison who managed the Madison Mill. William W. Walton  purchased the Madison Mill in 1913 renaming it the Walton Mill. The mill was torn down in 1937.

[3]This was Jefferson L. Fulton who passed away in Chicago on Christmas Day 1918.

[4]The Briggs Building was located at 400 East Michigan Avenue. Now the site is the entrance to Museum Drive.

[5]The Wynkoop, Hallenbeck & Crawford Printing Company was located at 119-121 E. Ottawa. 

[6]This was Charles Lewis Weil, Professor of Mechanical Engineering.

[7]Graham flour was a course whole wheat flour named for Sylvester Graham a Presbyterian minister a proponent of temperance and vegetarianism. Graham Crackers are named after Sylvester Graham an interesting character in history.